Gabriel Tarde: Been there, done that.

In the last decade or so (earlier, if you speak French) there has been a ‘neo-Tardian revival’ as people organize conferenceswrite books, and otherwise advocate for Gabriel  Tarde, an otherwise-forgotten thinker of France’s Third Republic. Most anthropologists think of Tarde, if they think of him at all, as one of the many guys that Durkheim defeated on his climb to the top of France’s academic heap. Today, people are interested in Tarde because he is part of the intellectual genealogy of people like Deleuze and Latour. This work is interesting and important because it moves beyond a vision of society as composed of static, coherent, superorganic social wholes to one which more adequately theorizes human conduct as a dynamic, emergent system with multiple determinants and outcomes. Except I will say one thing:

Some of the earliest anthropologists to take up Tarde’s work were American anthropologists. The first English translation (afaik) of Tarde’s Laws of Imitation was by Elsie Clews Parsons, who was (among other things) the first female president of the American Anthropological Association.

I don’t bring this up to dismiss current work on Tarde, which is very interesting. Nor do I bring it up because there was a tremendous up-take of Tarde’s thought in Boasian anthropology (there wasn’t). However, I do want to insist that Parson’s translation of Tarde is as emblematic of anthropology’s future as the more recent work I cited above.

Early Boasian anthropology is still painfully misunderstood and dramatically under-read, and yet the Boasians were tremendously clear-headed and thought deeply about issues that are still relevant to us today. Durkheimian corporatism never got off the ground in the US (even Kroeber’s version). From an American perspective, the Anglo-French need to flog Durkheim over and over (and over) just underlines how deep his influence runs.

Additionally, the fact that we can now all read Parsons’s translation for free from indicates that power that open access scholarship can have to alter our perception of anthropological history, and thus change how we move into the future. has the potential to revolutionize how we understand the early decades of our history, simply by making them available to everyone.

Finally, Parsons’s translation of Tarde indicates a challenge facing our scholarly future: opening the archives makes our history available to all, but the only people with the skills to discover these sources are the people who already know about them. Sites like create a desperate need for new textbooks, anthologies, indexes, finding guides, and other scholarly products which will help guide readers to the wealth of new but incredibly obscure resources out there.

So keep reading Deleuze, Guattari, Latour, Tarde, and so forth. But while you’re doing so don’t forget that Parsons, Goldenweiser, and Radin deserve looking into too — and are just a click away.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

11 thoughts on “Gabriel Tarde: Been there, done that.

  1. My tutor at Ox (who had studied for his undergrad at Reed) told me that Alexander Goldenweiser had a collection of books in ‘all of the languages of Europe’ which had been annotated by Goldenweiser in the language they were in. If the book was in Russian, he wrote his notes in the margins in Russian; if French, the notes were in French. Clearly an incredibly clever man.

    It’s easy to see the value in reading the Boasians, but I’m struggling to find the value in reading books by Deleuze, Guattari, or Latour.

  2. @Rex

    I have heard you say before that we should pay more attention to the Boasians. I suspect, however, that for many like me, who were trained in the British + French traditions, an important question is where to begin. Could we persuade you to put together a brief syllabus, along the lines of “Reading these five or ten things in the following order will provide you with a solid foundation”?

  3. I can not speak for Rex, obviously, and though I could provide such a list, I would recommend Regna Darnell’s Invisible Genealogies as a first stop. One of the difficulties for those getting started with the Boasians is that the theory tends to be implicit. Darnell does a good job of laying it all bare.

  4. John — that’s the next entry. Hang in there! Actually while I’m putting that together, Lowie’s “Culture and Ethnology” is a good popular introduction (skip the last chapter) but probably a little basic for you. Goldenweiser’s “History, Psychology, and Culture” is also a good start (although with a convoluted writing style) and the essays is available in the book of the same name as well as on JSTOR. I believe that it is OA on as well.

    I second Invisible Genealogies. The conclusion to “Along Came Boas” by Darnell is the best summary of the Boasians. Stocking’s “The Basic Assumptions of Boasian Anthropology” in “The Shaping of American Anthropology” is longer and a little earlier.

  5. George Stocking’s Race, Culture and Evolution is the crucial source on Boas, making explicit much of what was implicit in Boas. Ruth Benedict is the Boasian who was most explicit about what culture is.

    Ira Bashkow, Matti Bunzl, Andrew Orta, Richard Handler and I published a set of papers in AA about the relevance of Boasian anthropology for today. Our general intro and my piece are on my page, and of course the rest are available online if you have access to anthrosource.

  6. @Daniel,

    Thank you so much. I have just quickly scanned the general intro to which you have provided the link above. Very impressive, indeed. I look forward to reading your piece at a more leisurely pace after I get home from the office today.

  7. Amen, Rex. I second the suggestion of “Goldenweiser’s “History, Psychology, and Culture.” It knocked me out when I read it and I loved that I used to be able to teach it. For its illustration of Boasian ethnological/cultural historical method in action, I really like Radin’s dissertation on the medicine dance, which was published in JAF in 1911 and is old enough to be free via JSTOR.

  8. John, Thanks for the plug. In that context, with reference to countering the despair implicit in our hyper critical temperament, you should look at Ira Bashkow’s piece on borders in the same mini-collection.

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